Guillermo del Toro shows a supremely deft hand with The Shape of Water
, a beautiful film that manages to be an adult fairy tale, mixing in elements of Beauty and the Beast
, The Creature From the Black Lagoon
, Hollywood musicals, 1950s cinema, Shirley Temple movies, and a Cold War spy story. It sounds ludicrous, and perhaps in the wrong hands, it would have been a bloated disaster. But del Toro shows early on that he knows how to tell this story, and though there are a couple bumps along the way, he never loses his vision, which is to essentially make an unabashed love story.
The movie immediately grabs our attention with its heroine, Elisa, played with incredible grace by the wonderful Sally Hawkins. She is easily one of the more unforgettable lead characters in recent cinema. Thanks to an unexplained injury, which is represented by scars down the sides of her neck, Elisa is mute and speaks through sign language. Elisa works the night shift as a janitor at a top secret government lab at some point in the early 1960s. She leads a fairly uneventful life. The highlight of her day seems to be when she steps into the bathtub and pleasures herself before going to work. She's also fairly solitary, though she does have two good friends. One of them is a co-worker named Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who spends most of the time complaining about her idiot husband. The other is the man in the apartment next to hers, Giles (the always welcome Richard Jenkins), who keeps a lot of cats in his place, and introduces Elisa to classic films on television.
One day, there is a new arrival at the lab where Elisa works - "the most sensitive asset ever to be housed in this facility", we are told. It turns out to be an amphibious fish-man that was captured in the Amazon, and was believed by the local natives to be a god. There apparently was a race to capture this creature (the Russians want it also), so the scientists begin to experiment on it, often through cruel means. The head of the operation, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, making the most of a fairly two-dimensional bully character), is particularly spiteful toward the creature, especially after it bites off two of his fingers during one of their encounters. But Elisa begins to develop a certain kinship and even intimate relationship with the fish-man whenever she is sent to its holding room to clean. Like her, it cannot speak, though it seems willing to communicate with her when she begins to teach it simple sign language during their time together. She befriends it by sharing her hard-boiled eggs, and then begins introducing it to music. Over time, a more sensual relationship begins to form, and Elisa not only develops feelings for the creature, but it seems it feels the same way toward her.
The idea for The Shape of Water
apparently grew from Guillermo del Toro's desire to do a remake of The Creature From the Black Lagoon
, where the ending was going to be changed with the female lead ending up in love with the Creature. When the studio rejected this idea, he decided to make his own film based around his idea. The influence of the classic horror film is obvious, but he also uses a lot of other sources of inspiration and ideas that feel fresh, despite the fact that we can obviously see what he is borrowing from. What makes everything is work is how del Toro takes these ideas, and sets them in a world that blends the ordinary with the fantastic. Much like his 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth
, he is creating a luscious fantasy world out of very real settings and a certain time and place.
The movie also works as a giant love letter to classic Hollywood. Elisa and Giles live above a movie theater where double features are always shown. And whenever the two get together in his apartment, they mimic the dance steps that they see in Shirley Temple and Carmen Miranda movies on TV. This actually leads up to one of the film's more unforgettable moments - A fantasy sequence built around a lavish old Hollywood musical number, where Elisa and the Fish-Man express their desire through dance, set to the classic standard "You'll Never Know
". I feel I must stress again that I understand how bizarre this all sounds, but del Toro makes this work by creating a whimsical world where we can buy this stuff happening. He is also aided by an exceptional cast who find the right balance of realism and fantastical charm in order to sell this material. I would be remiss not to mention Doug Jones, who performs as the Fish-Man, and manages to bring about a wonderfully expressive performance while hidden under mounds of special effects make up and prostheses.
But it is the sentimental, strong and overall emotional performance by Sally Hawkins that not only grounds the fantastical story into some kind of reality, but is also whimsical enough that we are willing to follow where the movie goes. She joins Meryl Streep and Frances McDormand as among the top female performances to come out of 2017. (You should also check out Hawkins' winning turn in last weekend's Paddington 2
, as well.) She is what holds The Shape of Water
together, and is a big part of what makes the film the magical and romantic experience that it is.